First Chapter Friday: The Always One

 

Maureen

I’ve had a crush on Smith Harrington since we were in college together. I knew he didn’t see me as anything more than his friend—just one of the guys—but that didn’t stop me from weaving sexy fantasies about him.

Now, after years of maintaining a long-distance friendship, Smith’s moving to Burton to be my partner at the veterinary clinic—and he’s living upstairs at my new house. After all this time, I should be able to handle working and living with him without getting hot and bothered. 

Or maybe not. 

Smith

I’ve wanted Maureen Evans since the first day I saw her, but she never seemed interested in taking things to the next level. Eventually, I figured we were destined to stay in the friend zone. And although we’ve lived hundreds of miles apart for years, to me, she’s still the one who got away. 

When Maureen asks me to be her partner at the veterinary clinic, I jump at the chance. Maybe all hope is not lost. Maybe with a little effort on my part, we can finally have our shot at love. So even as Maureen tries to maintain our just-friends bond, I push those boundaries . . . until flirting crosses the line into something more. 

When friendship is no longer enough, there’s always love.

Read the first chapter now!

Maureen

“Have no fear, reinforcements are here!” 

I heard Meghan’s voice before her red head poked around the corner of my bedroom door. She grinned at me and held up the pile of flattened packing boxes she’d brought. “As promised. And I’ve got some wrapping paper and tape in the car. I’ll go grab them.”

“Why don’t you hold on for the moment? We’ve got enough to get started, and we’re tight on space.” I gazed around my room, sighing. Who would think that thirty years of living in the same house, with a brief hiatus during college, would let me accumulate this much crap? And yet here we were, knee-deep in boxes, knick-knacks, books, and clothes.

“Okay, where should I start?” Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the scene. “This is your show. I’m just a hired hand.”

“Yeah, well, don’t expect anything in the way of recompense, toots. This is strictly a charity gig. I’m poor now, you know.”

“Don’t worry. The only expectations I have are paper cuts and maybe a pizza and a couple of beers.”

“That I can handle. Why don’t you start with the books? There’re a few sturdy boxes from the liquor store in the corner.”

“On it.” She retrieved one of the boxes and began pulling books from the tall shelves that lined my walls, stacking them carefully. “I passed your mom on my way in. She seemed a little, ah, preoccupied. Everything okay?”

I blew my bangs out of my eyes. “Yeah. She’s picking up the pizza.” I concentrated on wrapping a small crystal box. “She claims it’s not true, but I think on some level, she’d started to think I was going to live here with her forever. You know, the widow Evans and her spinster daughter.”

“Shut up. You’re not a spinster.”

I nodded. “Oh, you’re right. I forgot about the husband and kids I have. Crap, where did I leave them now?”

Meghan rolled her eyes. “I just mean, you’re hardly old and dried up. Lots of women stay single later nowadays. You’re a modern career gal.”

Snorting, I reached for another pile of paper. “Sure I am. Or I’m the oldest single woman in Burton under fifty.” I watched my friend try to work out what I’d said. “No, it’s true. I figured it out the other day. Miss Charity, who works at the bank, is in her mid-fifties, near as I can figure. I don’t think there’s another unmarried woman in town my age or older until you get to her.”

“Maybe if you dated a little more instead of spending your Friday nights thinking about that stuff, it’d be a moot point.” She taped up the first box of books and moved on to another one. 

“Uh-huh. That reminds me, I need to send a change-of-address notice to the men knocking down my door, begging to take me out.” I lifted my own finished box and carried it to the hallway. We were getting a nice little collection out here. Pretty soon, I could build a tunnel. 

“I’m not going to argue and point out that if you wanted to go out on dates, you could.”

“Yeah, with who? You took the last decent available man in town.” I thought about Sam Reynolds, who’d been more like a brother to me than anything else, and I gave a little shudder. “Not that I was interested in Sam that way. Ever. I’m glad he ended up with you.”

Meghan smiled. “Me, too. But while I’ll admit I happen to think my husband is the sexiest, most incredible man in town, I find it hard to believe he’s the last one.”

“Okay, maybe Rilla’s the one to blame. She snapped up Mason from under our very noses.” 

“Were you interested in Mason?” Meghan’s voice was equal parts surprise and amusement. 

“Not one bit. I mean, the man is seriously hot. He’s built for sin, he’s a huge flirt, and he’s sweet as sugar to boot. But other than that, not my type.” I flipped up the top flaps of a half-packed box. 

“So exactly what is it you’re looking for, if it’s not someone like Sam or Mason?” She started on a new shelf of books. 

“Ah, I didn’t say I wasn’t looking for someone like Sam or Mason. But there are definite aspects of those men I’d love to have in my OAO.”

“OAO?” Meghan’s forehead wrinkled. 

“One and only.” I winked at her and then tilted my head, thinking. “I guess I’m looking for someone . . . easy. Someone who I can hang out with, who knows me and likes me for who I am. Someone I don’t have to pretend with.” Smiling, I stood up and stretched my back. “Physically, I’m not that picky. A little taller than me, in good shape but not too built, you know? I don’t want to be intimidated by how much he works out. A regular guy.” 

“There’ve got to be tons of regular guys around Burton. Maybe you’re just not looking in the right places.”

“Oh, yeah? And just where do you think this battalion of regular guys hangs out, pray tell? At Mason’s? At church? Out at the farm stand?”

Meghan threw up her hands. “I don’t know, Reenie. But you have to put yourself out there to meet people. Your—what did you call him? Your one and only isn’t going to just walk up to your front door and ring the bell.”

“Maybe he’ll bring in his dog to the clinic. We’ll lock eyes over his only-a-little-bit sick pet, and he’ll say . . . ‘Hello, Dr. Evans. I’m just a regular guy, and I’ve been looking for a girl just like you.’”

“You’ve been reading too many romance novels.” She lifted a stack of paperbacks. “Exhibit A.”

“Yeah, whatever. Why shouldn’t my life be like one of those books? I deserve a beautiful happily-ever-after.”

“Of course you do. I’m just saying you might have to do a little something to make it happen.” Meghan lifted up the box and carried it out of the room. “So is your mom really upset about you moving out?”

“No. I don’t think so.” I stopped moving for a moment. “I mean, I think she’s a little sad. I’m the last chick to leave the nest. Iona’s been gone since she left for college and Flynn . . .” I rolled my eyes. “He left with all the big drama, of course.”

“And came back in the same way.” Meghan dropped onto the floor and began to put together one of the flattened boxes. “But it all worked out.”

“Yup.” My baby brother had left our small town the day after his high school graduation, full of ambition, determination and with a badly broken heart, since his long-time girlfriend Ali Reynolds had changed her mind at the last minute about going with him. He’d only returned about a year and a half ago when our father had died suddenly. He’d been as surprised as the rest of us to learn that Ali’s daughter Bridget was actually his child.

As Meghan had said, everything had worked out. Ali and Flynn had gotten married about a year ago, and now they divided their time between New York City and Burton, where they’d built a small house on the Reynolds’ family farm.

“Still, I don’t think it bothered Mom so much because I was here. Or Dad was. And when I told her my idea about buying the old Walker house, she was as excited as I was.” I wrapped another piece of crystal. “But over the last few weeks, she’s been pretty moody. Maybe it just hit her that I’m really leaving.” The thought of my mom rambling around this big house, lonely and sad, hurt my heart.

Meghan stepped around boxes and piles of stuff to sit on the bed next to me. “Maureen, this is a good thing. It’s a move forward. You’re buying your own home, and now you own the clinic, too. Your mom knows that, even if it’s going to be an adjustment at first.”

“I know.” I sniffled a little and dug in the pocket of my jeans for a tissue. “I guess change is always hard.”

“Helloooooo!” A familiar voice floated up the steps, and I smiled. 

“Up here!” Meghan answered, and we heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps running lightly up the stairs. A few seconds later, my sister-in-law’s head peeked around the corner. 

“What’s this? I thought we were working. Packing and shit.” 

“Ali!” Meghan popped up and clambered over everything blocking her way to the door. “When did you get into town?”

“Just now, basically. We pulled into the farm, and Sam told me where you were. I left Bridge and Flynn to unpack and settle in. I figured y’all could use some help.” She surveyed the room. “Seems I was right. Shit, Reen, how the hell did you accumulate all this stuff?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea. And I swear I didn’t have this much crap until I started packing it. Maybe it multiplied.”

“That sounds possible. Point me in the direction of boxes, and tell me what to do.”

I pointed to the shelves. “How about helping Meghan finish up the books? That seems like the biggest priority.”

“On it.” She grabbed a box and began pulling books from a shelf Meghan had begun. “Okay, bitches, tell me all the news. Email and texting are great, but I feel like I never get the real scoop until we talk.”

“First of all, can we discuss how you talk when you come back from being up north? Since when do you call your friends ‘bitches’?” 

Ali laughed. “Sorry. I need to stop talking Yankee when I hit the Mason-Dixon, huh? But stop trying to divert me, Reenie. I need to know what’s going on with you and one Mr. Smith Harrington.”

My face grew warm, and I dropped the marker I was using. “Nothing. What do you mean?” I bent over to retrieve the pen.

“I mean, when we left for New York after Christmas, you were living here, working at the clinic, clinging to the status quo. Then about a month ago, I hear from your mom that you’re taking over Dr. Yancey’s practice, buying a house, and the guy who made your heart go pitty-pat all through college is moving down here. Moving in with you.” She dropped two books into the box and threw up her hands. “What the fu—uhh, I mean, heck? Tell me what happened.”

I reached for a pile of notebooks and slid them into the box I was packing. “First of all, Mom’s not here, so you don’t have to worry about her yelling at you for your language. Second, Smith isn’t moving in with me. He’s going to rent the upstairs part of my house. Mrs. Walker converted it to a duplex a few years back.”

“But how did Smith end up being your renter? I didn’t even know you were still in touch with him.”

I’d forgotten that Ali would probably remember Smith—and that she was one of a very select group of people who’d known about the huge crush I’d had on him. She and I had still been friends early in my college years; our estrangement hadn’t happened until the summer before my junior year. Crap.

“Yeah, we did. Keep in touch, I mean. Nothing big, just emails, social media, that kind of thing.” I worked hard to keep my voice casual. No way did I want Ali making a huge deal out of this. “He was looking around for a new practice, and I knew I didn’t want to try to run Dr. Yancey’s on my own. I’ve got some good ideas for expanding it, but I can’t do that without a partner. So it worked out well.”

“Mmmmmhmmmmm.” Ali finished her box and began taping it. “And is Mr. Smith Harrington married?”

I didn’t look up. “Um, no.”

“And is he currently involved in a relationship?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“And are you planning to jump his bones?”

“I don’t—God, Ali. Seriously? Are you fifteen?”

“Nope. Just morbidly curious.”

“Well, stop. That whole thing with Smith—that was a long time ago. And keep your mouth shut when he gets here because he never knew about any of that craziness. Thank God. I’d have been mortified.”

“Okay, I feel like I just walked into the second act of a play. What’re you talking about?” Meghan looked from our mutual sister-in-law to me. “I thought Smith was just an acquaintance from college. Did you guys date?”

“No.” I filled that one word with as much emphasis as possible. “We did not. We were very good friends. We still are. And that’s all we’ll ever be.”

Ali nodded, her face poker straight. “That’s right. They were very good friends. Smith was the very good friend Reenie wanted to screw silly.”

I groaned and dropped my head into my hands. “Ali. You’re making me regret telling you all my deep-darks way back when.”

“Too late. And tell me it’s not serendipity, him deciding to move down here. You’ll be in the same town, in the same house, working together . . . sounds like the perfect set-up to me. Time to make some of those sexual fantasies come true.”

“When did you get such a dirty mind?” I stood up and crossed my arms over my chest. 

“Blame your brother. We’ve been making up for lost time, and he’s very creative. Just the other night, we—”

I clapped my hands over my ears. “La, la, la, la—I don’t need to hear the disgusting details of your sex life with my little brother.” 

Meghan came over to sit next to me again. “Don’t worry, Reen. If she gets out of hand, I’ll just make sure I talk about what her brother and I did last weekend down at the lake.”

Ali made a face and held up one hand. “Okay, okay. You win.” She shook her head. “When did it happen that my sisters-in-law ganged up on me like this?”

“That’s what happens when you spend six months out of the year in the big city, little sister.” I picked my way across the room and folded her into a tight hug. “But we love you anyway. Thanks for coming over to help, even if you are a pain in the ass.”

“Maureen Ann, language!” The front door slammed shut, and my mother’s words sailed up the steps. 

I rolled my eyes. “Why is it always me she catches? You two could out-swear sailors and she never hears a word.” Raising my voice, I leaned out into the hallway. “Sorry, Mom.”

She appeared at the top of the stairs, lifting her curling black hair off her neck. “It’s hotter than hades out there. Ali, come here and give me a hug. Look at you, you’re more beautiful than ever.” Mom wrapped Ali in her arms then leaned back, studying her daughter-in-law. I saw my mother’s eyes narrow a little, but she didn’t say anything before she released her. “How’re you girls coming up here? Almost done?”

“Oh, uh, we’re getting close.” I glanced behind me at the partially-packed boxes and piles of assorted stuff. 

“Hmm.” Mom raised one eyebrow. “Well, pizza’s waiting for you downstairs. Let’s go eat while it’s hot.” She turned and headed down the steps.

I slung an arm around Ali. “You know what the best part is of you and Flynn and Bridge being back in Burton? It means Mom has three other people to worry about and pester.”

Ali sighed and shook her head. “Oh, joy.”

I laughed. “Welcome home, little sister.”

 

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Bosom Buddies Episode Eighteen

 

Celeste

Boobs are my business.

Okay, yes, I know I said that before, but hear me out. Boobs—and the effort to save them—have brought me more than just my business and my livelihood. Thanks to boobs, I met my two best friends. Also, I got a second chance with the man who got away once upon a time—the same one who came back into my life and made everything wrong somehow right again.

But I digress.

Let’s get back to my friends. I met Sabrina and Coral on my first day of junior year at college. The weekend before I’d come back to school, I’d had sex for the first time—and it just happened to have been with my older brother’s best friend, the guy I’d crushed hard on all through my teen years. I was feeling all kinds of emotions, everything from guilt that I’d done the deed with someone who’d made it clear it was a one-night-only deal to hurt that he’d been able to walk away from me so easily.

So even though my family wasn’t really religious, I’d somehow wandered into a Catholic church. A priest was taking confession, and when I slipped into a booth and blurted out my sins, the kindly older man had offered advice along with absolution.

“You need to get outside yourself,” he’d suggested. “You know, help others. Volunteer with a charity. Work with the needy.”

I’d thanked him profusely and hightailed it out of there in case he planned to recruit me as a nun. But when I’d stepped out into the sunshine, I’d been smack in the middle of a big volunteer rally—how’s that for timing and coincidence, huh?—hosted by Young Survival Coalition.

Sabrina and Coral each had had their own reasons for being at the rally, but somehow, we’d found each other and formed a friendship that had never wavered over the ten years since.

But today, I was about to do something that was either going to strengthen that bond or threaten it. And I really wasn’t sure which way it was going to go.

“Babe, are you sure about this?” Ty’s skepticism wasn’t exactly helping me. “I mean, I know you have all the right intentions, but . . . it kind of feels like you’re interfering in your friends’ lives. In a big way.”

“No. Well, yes.” I frowned and shook my head. “But it’s for their own good. And really, it’s just a Christmas Eve party. An intimate little get-together for my friends.”

“And the guys who they’ve recently stopped seeing,” Ty added. “Don’t forget that little detail.”

“Hey, who’s side are you on, anyway?” My forehead wrinkled as I glared at him. “If the answer isn’t mine, then I think Santa just might not bring you the very special treat you were going to get tonight. After everyone leaves.”

“I’m always on your side, darlin’.” Ty’s haste to reassure me was sweet, but I wasn’t sure if it was genuine or encouraged by what he wanted to see on me—or off me—tonight in bed. “I always will be. But I’m also just a little worried that you might be in for a big disappointment—and your best friends could end up furious with you.”

“No . . .” To be honest, I wasn’t as settled on that point as I might have been. Sabrina was a dead-set against romance woman, and I knew that she’d been rattled by her renewed acquaintance with Wesley, the guy she’d thought had abandoned her after their first kiss back in high school. Coral, on the other hand, was all about romance—as long as it didn’t involve her own love life. Still, she’d spilled her guts to Sabrina and me about Dax, her temporary fake boyfriend, and in the course of doing that, she’d admitted that maybe she did have feelings for him.

“You don’t sound sure about that,” Ty observed, smirking. “It’s not too late to call this off, you know.”

“I’m not doing that.” Crossing my arms over my chest, I shook my head. “I want my best friends to be as happy together as you and I are. Wesley and Sabrina deserve a second chance to find out if they’re meant to be, now that they’re grown up. And Coral has to realize that she can’t live the rest of her life being faithful to a boy who died over ten years ago. She didn’t die with him.”

“Maybe that’s the trouble,” Ty put in. “Maybe she has survivor guilt.”

“I’m sure that’s part of it,” I agreed. “But I don’t want her to waste any more time with that guilt. I want her to find her happy ending. Or her new happy beginning.”

He studied me, his expression inscrutable. “You really are a good friend, you know that, babe? Sabrina and Coral are lucky to have you.”

“We’re lucky to have each other,” I corrected him, smiling. “And that’s why I need to do everything I can to help them out.”

“Well, then.” Ty stood up, stretching, and my lady parts sang as I drank in the sight of his toned, muscular torso pressed against his T-shirt. “I guess we’ve got some party prep to do.”

***

“Hey! I brought the rum!” Sabrina came through the front door wearing skin-tight burgundy velvet jeans and a creamy cashmere sweater with a deep V neck. She was gorgeous as always, even if I could see the hints of sadness beneath her holiday merry mask.

“Welcome! Merry Christmas.” I hugged her and stepped back, pretending to examine her outfit from head to toe. “Wow. Hot mama. Do you have plans after, or is all this sexiness just for Coral and me?”

“Hey, don’t I count?” Ty came up behind me, slipping his arms around my waist as he grinned at Sabrina.

“No, you don’t count, because you only have eyes for my girl here.” She gave his bicep a light punch. “As it should be. And to answer your question, Celeste . . . no, no plans. Just happy that I’m actually off duty for Christmas Eve.”

“That’s something to celebrate.” Ty reached over my shoulder and snagged the bottle of rum from Sabrina’s hand. “Let me add this to the bar I’ve set up. Can I make you a drink? Celeste and I came up with a twist on a coquito that’s pretty damn amazing.”

“Sure, I’ll take one of those.” Sabrina wagged her eyebrows at me as Ty headed toward the kitchen. “How adorable are you two! It’s like he can’t stop touching you, and every time you look at him, there are sweet little red candy hearts in your eyes.”

“Shut up.” I swatted at her, but she wasn’t wrong—the smile that wouldn’t wipe off my face was proof of that.

“Where’s Coral?” Sabrina tossed her purse onto the entry table and dropped down to sit on the sofa.

“She’ll be here soon.” I shrugged. “She said she needed to drive into Savannah to finish some Christmas shopping today. I think she’s trying to give Ty and me alone time, even though I told her that this is her house, too, and we both respect that.”

“Do you think you’ll end up moving out?” Sabrina cocked her head. “You know, so you can shack up with loverboy guilt-free?”

“It’s much too soon to think about that,” I answered loftily, even though I’d already been sneaking peeks at the real estate ads, just in case Ty and I decided to make Burton our joint home base. “Besides, he lives in Nashville.”

“Oh, with the way his star is rising, pretty soon our boy will be able to live wherever he wants.” Sabrina shrugged. “Besides, now that you’ve found each other again, why would you want to even think about being apart?”

“Funny that you’d say that,” I began, thinking that Sabrina had given me the perfect opening.

“Yeah, I’d kind of like to hear the answer, too.”

We both turned toward the door to see a tall guy who looked like he could’ve been Chris Evans’ stunt double. My mouth dropped open. Damn. Sabrina had told us that her old high school sweetheart was sexy, but I hadn’t realized just how hot he was.

“Wesley?” Sabrina stood up. “What are you doing here? I thought you left town. Linc told me . . . he said you’d moved on to a new job.”

“I told you that day in the basement that I wasn’t going to leave town again, wasn’t going to leave you.” He shut the door behind him and took another step toward us. “I had to go up to North Carolina for a few weeks to help with another project. But I always knew I’d be back.”

“I . . . I . . .” Sabrina stammered, and in all the years we’d been friends, I’d never heard her do such a thing. “That day in the basement, Wesley. What I said to Linc on the way out—and how I ran away—I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it to sound the way it did.”

“Brina girl, have you been beating yourself all this time, thinking I didn’t know that?” Wesley closed the distance between them. “I knew what you meant. You were freaked out about the storm, and then Linc showed up, and that threw you for a loop.”

Sabrina sank back to the sofa. “But I left you there without saying anything, and then I didn’t try to call you or see you. . .  I figured you’d given up on me this time.”

“Nope.” Wesley dropped to one knee next to my friend. “I had to leave the next day, and I figured you needed some space after—” He glanced my way, and one side of his mouth curled slightly. “After everything we, uh, talked about the day of the storm. I only got back to Burton yesterday. Celeste had texted me last week, though, to invite me tonight.”

Sabrina looked up at me, her brow knit together. “How did you even know how to get in touch with him?”

I shrugged. “I have my ways.”

Realization dawned in her eyes. “Jenna Turner.”

“She might have played a part,” I allowed. “I just really wanted you to have another chance to talk to Wesley. To figure things out.”

“Listen, Brina.” Wesley reached for her hand. “I’m not asking you to swear undying love to me. Not tonight, anyway.” He winked at her. “All I want is for us to take a chance—together. Let’s take the time to find out, once and for all, if that spark is still there. And at the end of the day, if it isn’t . . .” He lifted one shoulder. “Then we’re still two good friends who’ve been able to reconnect, right?”

Sabrina was silent for a moment, and then she nodded. “Right. But Wesley . . .” She threaded her fingers through his. “If that day in my basement is any indication, I don’t think a lack of spark is going to be any problem.”

Grinning broadly, Wesley straightened up and pulled Sabrina to her feet, too. Drawing her close to him, he said, “Maybe we should start testing that theory right now.”

The kiss he gave her just about blistered the paint on the wall of my living room. I looked away discreetly, wondering if I should step out, maybe see if Ty needed help in the kitchen—

“Well, hey. Looks like a win for little Miss Matchmaker.” My boyfriend came in bearing a tray of drinks along with crackers and cheese. “Not bad, babe. One couple down, one to go.”

“Wait a minute.” Sabrina came up for air just long enough to stare at me. “One down, one to go . . . does that mean that Coral—”

“Oh, my God!” My roommate and other best friend burst through the door at that moment. Dropping her bags, she covered her mouth with both hands, trying to stifle a shriek. “Is this Wesley? Sabrina, is this him?”

Snuggling a little closer, Sabrina nodded. “Wesley, you already met Celeste, but this is the third member of our little trio, Coral Jennings. Coral, Celeste surprised me tonight and invited Wesley to join us—and it turns out that we’re both in the market for second chances.”

“I can’t believe it! This is so amazing and wonderful and romantic.” Coral did a little dance. “I’m so happy for you, sweetie.”

“Well, uh—” Sabrina looked at me, her eyebrow arched meaningfully. “I’m glad you’re in favor of pop-up matchmaking, Cor. Because Celeste just might have interfered in your love life, too.”

Coral tilted her head. “Oh, really? So was it meant to be a surprise that you invited Dax tonight, Celeste?”

My eyes went wide. “You knew?”

She giggled. “As it happens, when the text came in, we were together. At his apartment in Savannah.” She paused for dramatic effect. “In bed.”

“How could you not tell me?” I wailed. “I was so worried about you.”

“Didn’t you wonder where I’ve been disappearing to for the last few weeks?” Mirth danced in her eyes. “Or have you been too busy shacking up with your own loverboy?”

Ty chuckled, and I elbowed him in the ribs. “Watch it, buddy. Remember my threat about that special treat tonight.”

“Hey, I’m just saying that the lady has a point.” Ty slung an arm around my neck and tugged me close. “So Coral, is Dax gonna make it here tonight?”

“He’s parking the car. We were going to walk in together, but we didn’t want to ruin your plans, Celeste.” Coral hugged me. “I really do appreciate you butting in, even though it was unnecessary in this case.”

“But what happened?” I asked. “The last I heard, Dax had turned down your friends-with-benefits proposal, and that was the end.”

“Well, it might have been, if I hadn’t been on the set of Diego’s movie,” Coral admitted. “Diego and I formed a mutual encouragement society—I pushed him to take a chance with Zander McCord, and he goaded me into admitting that maybe it was all right to take a chance on something real with Dax.” Her expression softened. “All this time, I’ve been telling myself that I could never really love again after Jason. But the truth was that I was terrified to go through that kind of pain again—the kind that comes when you really love someone and then lose him.”

“But we agreed that you’re never going to lose me.” Dax joined Coral in the doorway, looking all sorts of sinful in his leather bomber jacket and smoldering good looks. He drew Coral to his side. “And even if the unthinkable happened, we’d rather have this time together than miss out on what could be pretty damn spectacular.”

“What he said,” Coral sighed, snuggling closer. “I’m risking my heart on Dax because he’s worth it.”

“Well, come in and shut the door,” I said, waving them into the living room. “Ty’s brought drinks for everyone, and I, for one, think that this calls for a toast.”

“You mean Dax and me?” Coral inquired. “Or Sabrina and Wesley?”

“How about all of us finding love this year?” I suggested. “How about us celebrating this beautiful season with someone special by our sides?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Sabrina chimed in, lifting the glass that Ty had given to her.

“No, wait a minute.” Coral, our resident wordsmith, raised her glass and took a moment to look at first Sabrina and then me, her eyes shining.

“To friendship. To love. To being there for each other. To bonds that last. To sticking by each other, thick or thin.

“And most of all . . . to the Bosom Buddies.”

 

Thank you for reading Bosom Buddies!

Writing this serial has been so much fun–

and has let me spend just a little more time in Burton this year.

I wish you and your families–those you choose and those you were given–

the best of the holiday season.

And no matter how or when or if you celebrate,

I invite you to choose love every single day of the year.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

Bosom Buddies Episode Seventeen

 

Dax

“So you never did tell me. How did the big date go? You know, that night I covered your shift and you were all dressed up in the monkey suit?”

One side of my mouth curled up as I regarded Marc. “Fine. It was fine. Now listen up, because I want you to be familiar with this new list of cocktails. The holidays are just around the corner, and you know we’re going to have a shit ton of tourists in the city, staying at our hotel, hitting up this bar. That’s not even counting all of the corporate parties, weddings, and other social events.” I tapped the paper on the bar. “Read it. Learn it. Live it.”

“Uh-huh.” Marc picked up the menu and let his eyes wander down the list. “Don’t worry, boss. I’ll have time to study tonight. Looks like it’ll be pretty quiet.”

“Probably,” I conceded, tossing a used bar towel into the bin under the counter. “I’ll leave you to get down to business. I’ve got a date at home with a cold beer and Sunday Night Football.”

“Doesn’t sound like as much fun as your last date, but whatever, dude. You do you.” Marc grinned. And then, as an older couple wandered over to sit down at a nearby table, he winked at me. “Time to get to work.”

I’d just clocked out and was about to head out when Sherri, one of the restaurant servers, nearly ran into me.

“Oh, Dax! You’re exactly the man I need.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Not the first time I’ve heard that, but I have a feeling you mean it in a different way.”

She shot me a look of mock reprimand. “And you’d be right. Listen, we’re in the weeds tonight. We’re down two servers and a sous chef, and we’ve got two big parties coming in.” She lifted a small slip of white paper. “Then this guest up on the twentieth floor ordered champagne and strawberries to be delivered to her suite. Since you’re going to have to prep the bubbly anyway, would you mind taking it up along with the berries?”

I hesitated. Normally, I’d have been happy to help out my co-workers. One of the things I loved about this job at the hotel was that we all pulled together when the place got busy. I didn’t mind coming in early or hanging around to make sure the job got done. But I’d been feeling mopey and grumpy lately, and I honestly just wanted to be at home right now where I could be miserable on my own.

It was stupid, and I knew it. I didn’t even really know Coral Jennings, and we’d just shared that one kiss. Why was this bothering me so much? Why had I made an ass of myself by showing up at her signing? She’d snidely accused me stalking her, of wanting a piece of her fame pie—which was an asinine thing to say, by the way—but maybe I’d had it coming by pushing when she’d made her position clear.

Sherri was still waiting for my answer, her toes tapping impatiently. I bit back my initial inclination and nodded my head.

“Sure. Did the guest ask for a specific kind of champagne?”

Sherri lifted one eyebrow. “As a matter, they requested Cristal. 2005. Two flutes, strawberries and cream.” She rolled her eyes toward the kitchen. “Come see me when you’ve got the wine ready, and I’ll have everything else set to go.”

“Okay. Will do.” I turned to go back to the special cooler where we kept our high-end liquor.

“Appreciate you, Dax!”

I sighed and focused on the job at hand.

***

I didn’t make many room service deliveries. Most people came down to the bar when they wanted a drink, and when they ordered booze with a meal, the kitchen servers popped over to the bar to retrieve what was necessary and then added it to the cart.

Consequently, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken the service elevator upstairs. I was heading up to the penthouse suite now—swanky, weren’t we—with a wheeled cart beautifully set for two lucky someones to enjoy pricey bubbles and luscious red strawberries grown in a year-round garden within a biodome outside the city.

There were times when I felt as though I was doing okay in my life, paying my rent on time, owning my car outright, and even putting away a little something for the future. But when I came face-to-face with the luxuries we offered here at the Gwynne, I realized that I was still just a good ol’ boy from North Carolina, and I was never going to understand people who lived the high life.

The elevator dinged softly, announcing my arrival on the twentieth floor. I waited until the doors slid open and then wheeled my cart over the plush carpet to the suite’s door, where I knocked.

“Room service!”

The door swooshed open as though the occupant had been waiting for me, and when I saw who was on the other side, I understood why.

“Coral?”

She stood with one hand on the doorknob, fidgeting a little as she gazed up at me. My mouth dropped when I took in the full picture.

Her small and curvy body was covered in sheer white cloth, some kind of nightgown deal, I thought. It was the kind of thing I’d seen on television or in the movies, but none of the women I’d ever dated wore stuff like this.

But damn, Coral wore it well. The neckline plunged between her full breasts, revealing her creamy skin, and through the thin material, I could make out the dark circles of her nipples. Her short hair was tousled the same way it had been the night of the premiere, but this time, her face was bare, no makeup in sight. She didn’t need it; her gray eyes were luminous as she watched my gaze consume her luscious body.

“Hello, Dax.” Coral’s voice was husky.

“I—I didn’t know it was you. I mean, who ordered the—the room service.” I eased the cart further into the room.

“No, I specifically asked the woman downstairs to send you up without letting you know it was me. She told me you were about to go off-shift, and so I thought . . .” She shrugged, the movement causing the nightgown to ripple over her skin. “Maybe this was a good way to tell you that I’m sorry.”

“Well.” I cleared my throat. “It’s, um, the most unique and promising apology I’ve ever gotten.”

Her lips twitched, and she lifted her chin. “Dax, I’m sorry about what happened at the bookstore. I don’t . . . I shouldn’t have said that to you. I never really thought you were trying to—you know. Cash in on my fame. That was stupid. And hurtful. I think I was just reacting to—um, you pushing me. Not that you were—I mean, I know you didn’t mean to. You couldn’t know—you can’t understand. But anyway, I really am so sorry.”

“All right.” My voice sounded hollow. “Apology accepted.” I swallowed, not sure what to do next. I felt as though I’d fallen into some bizarre dream.

Coral sighed and clasped her hands behind her back, unintentionally—I thought—thrusting forward her chest. “Okay. Phew.” She smiled up at me. “I’m so glad we straightened that out.” She reached for the bottle of champagne. “Let’s celebrate by pouring some of this fine champagne and sitting down over here. Can you close the door, please? I know this is the penthouse, but I’d still like some privacy.”

“Coral.” I couldn’t believe I was doing this, but I shook my head. “What is this?”

Her hand holding the champagne flute shook a little. “What do you mean? I thought that since we cleared the air, we could . . . well.” She took a deep breath. “Like I told you, I don’t do dating or anything like that, but I like you, Dax. And I’m thinking that we could have some fun.”

“So you came up here, booked this suite, ordered room service, and met me with this—” I swept my hand in her direction. “This get-up. And you think that by saying you’re sorry, I’m going to be okay with jumping into bed with you, no strings attached.”

Coral crossed her arms over her breasts, her cheeks going pink. “I thought we could talk—I thought you were interested in me.”

“I am interested in you,” I almost bellowed, then lowered my voice as I remembered that we were in the fucking penthouse. “But for more than just a casual fuck. God, Coral, I’ve lived most of my life going from woman to woman, from bed to bed. It’s fine. It’s been fine. And then the first time I meet a woman I think could be more—a woman I want to be more to me—you won’t even think about it. You won’t even give us a try.”

“I explained all of this. I told you why.” Coral’s lip jutted out stubbornly.

“And I told you that I didn’t accept that. You threw some ugly words at me, and then you came here to, uh, apologize—” I gave the word air quotes. “—which was really just an excuse to try to seduce me.”

“Dax—” Coral began, but I cut her off, shaking my head.

“You said you could never love anyone else. You said you had your one shot at love when you were a teenager, and now you won’t even consider that maybe you’d get a second chance. You won’t think about it. I think you’re a damn coward, Coral Jennings.”

Her eyes flared. “The fuck I am.”

“You heard me. A damn coward who’s too chickenshit to take a chance on love.”

“How can you say that?” Tears filled her beautiful eyes, and I almost lost it right then, fighting the desire to sweep her into my arms and kiss her, make her feel better, take back the words I knew had stung. But if I touched her, I’d be a goner, and I wasn’t going to give in. Not when I knew we had the potential for so much more.

“I’m sorry, Coral,” I said, gentling my tone. “I really am. I didn’t mean to hurt you. But you have to know my truth, too. I’m tired of meaningless fucking. I’m tired of not having someone special in my life. Sure, I want the hot sex, but I also want long talks over meals. I want walks in the woods where we find out more about each other. When it comes to you, Coral, I want the whole package.” I took one step backward. “And because for the first time in my life, I know I want more, I’m not going to settle for anything less.”

Before I could look at her again and lose my resolve, I pivoted and walked out the door, shutting it behind me.

Want to know what comes next?

Episode Eighteen is coming next Friday, December 24th!

Is there any hope for these two?

And hey, what about Sabrina and Wesley?

There is ONE more episode of Bosom Buddies.

Don’t miss it!

What about Celeste?

If you didn’t read her story in TINSEL AND TATAS,

don’t despair . . .

TITS THE SEASON

is available here now!

Bosom Buddies Episode Sixteen

If you missed Episode Twelve, read it here.

If you missed Episode Thirteen, read it here.

If you missed Episode Fourteen, read it here.

If you missed Episode Fifteen, read it here.

Coral

“Thank you all for being here.” Dana, the bookstore owner, clasped her hands and smiled broadly at the packed room. “We’re so excited—and honored—to have bestselling—and local to Burton!—author Coral Jennings with us tonight. She’s going to tell us a little about the process of seeing her beautiful words turned into breathtaking films—and if we’re really nice to her, she might tell us about her new book, too.”

The audience chuckled appreciatively, and I forced my own smile to stay in place. God, I hated these things. I didn’t have a problem interacting with my fans on a one-on-one basis. I could sit for hours talking about my characters and listening to readers tell me how different stories had made them feel, what they hoped for the future of those characters . . . but standing up in front of a group of people, with the weight of their collective expectation falling heavy on my shoulders, I had to really focus to keep from panicking and running away. Fast.

But Dana, who’d opened her business in Farleyville, the next town over from Burton, had been such a cheerleader to me from my very first book that I felt an obligation to show up whenever she threw one of these events. Small, independently owned bookstores struggled these days, I knew. They were competing against the few remaining chain book sellers as well as the on-line giants. Dana was a savvy businesswoman who paid close attention to what her customers bought, and she’d begun working with local authors as a way of differentiating herself from other booksellers. Attendance at these monthly salons, as she called them, had swelled over the past year.

The applause jolted me from my reverie, and I glanced over to see Dana taking a step back from the podium, gesturing to me. Great. Showtime.

I took my place behind the microphone, placing my cards carefully on the stand in front of me, and lifted my eyes to the people in the seats, taking a moment to scan the crowd and remind myself that I was speaking to individual readers, not to a nameless, faceless entity. Sitting in the front row was Mrs. Elishman, who’d been one of my very first readers. She never missed one of my appearances if she could help it. A few seats behind her was Kevin Shewell. He’d started up a book club after getting hooked on my stories, and I’d made a few surprise video visits to the meetings.

My gaze stuttered when it swept over the other side of the room. Sitting on the end of a middle row was an all-too-familiar face, and when our eyes met, it felt as though everyone else disappeared.

What the hell was Dax Turner doing here?

**

I went hot all over, and for a long moment, I forgot where I was and what I was doing. It had been two weeks since the movie premiere, two weeks since our picnic on Sam and Meghan Reynolds’ farm. Two weeks since I’d admitted my sad history for Sexy Bartender Dude, letting him know that while I might be down for a hook-up, I wasn’t ever going to be interested in anything else.

When we’d left that day, we’d both been silent. Since my YouRideIt from Savannah had dropped me here at the farm, Dax had offered to drive me home, and I’d taken him up on it, thinking maybe I’d invite him in . . . and then we’d see what came next.

I couldn’t deny that I was attracted to him, and if he wanted to get down and dirty with me now that he understood I wasn’t going to get all mushy and insist that we were in love or any crap like that, I’d be open to it.

But Dax hadn’t said anything during our drive. I’d been mute, too, aside from giving him directions, telling him where to turn. And when he pulled up in front of the house I shared with Celeste, he hadn’t turned off the car or moved to unbuckle his seatbelt. Hell, he hadn’t even put the car in park.

So I’d stumbled over a goodbye and thank you for the ride, and then I’d grabbed my stuff and hightailed it into the house, refusing to look backward.

Since that day, Dax had texted me a few times, asking me to meet him for coffee or a drink . . . he’d even offered to drive to Burton to take me to dinner. But I’d declined each time. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but something about the guy felt dangerous to me. Not in a stranger-danger kind of way—no, I trusted him completely. Maybe it was myself I didn’t trust. Maybe I was a little afraid that Dax might be a threat to the promise I’d made ten years ago, the one I’d kept faithfully since Jason had left me.

Dax had gone radio-silent over the past couple of days. I’d assumed that he’d finally given up on me. But now here he was, his face alert and serious as he and the rest of the audience waited for me to speak.

I pushed him from my mind. If I was going to get through this next twenty minutes, I’d have to pretend Dax Turner didn’t exist, or I’d end up stammering and babbling.

Drawing in a deep breath, I pulled up my big girl I’m-an-author panties and began to speak.

***

“I just loved the movie.” The woman in front of me hugged copies of three of my books as she gushed over the just-released film. “You did such a great job picking actors to play all those characters. I can’t imagine how you do it!”

I refrained from rolling my eyes, but barely. No matter how often I explained—as I just had at length during my speech—that as the author, I actually had very little or nothing to do with the casting and producing of movies made from my books, some readers still didn’t get it. Trying to correct her assumption now was a losing proposition, so I just nodded and smiled.

“Wait until you see the next one,” I replied. “You know, they’ve cast Diego Ramos as Thomas. And some of the filming is going to happen right here in Burton. I’m hoping to be on set for a few days.”

The woman wrinkled her nose. “I heard that. Do you really think Diego Ramos is right for that role, though? I mean . . .” She shrugged. “I guess he’s a good actor, but Thomas isn’t, um, you know.” She flipped her hand over. “What do they say now? Latino?”

Inwardly I bristled, but I managed to control my expression. At least I hoped I did. “I don’t think that really matters, do you? Thomas is a sexy guy with dark hair and tanned skin. I even mentioned in the book that he had some Spanish blood from a few generations back. I think Diego will be fabulous.”

“Maybe. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to see him as Thomas. After all, he’s not only Puerto Rican, he’s also—”

Dana interceded at that point, perhaps sensing that I was about to lose it. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said, guiding the reader kindly but firmly away from the table. “Have you seen our special movie display over here? We even have a couple of autographed scripts that are up for auction—all for charity, of course.”

I blew out a breath, slumping back into my chair. It had been a long evening, and I was pitifully grateful that the line in front of my table had finally petered out. I’d lost track of Dax after my talk had ended, and I assumed that he’d slipped away. He wouldn’t have any interest in getting books signed, so there wouldn’t have been a reason for him to stay. Although come to think of it, I wasn’t entirely sure why he’d shown up at all.

“You look like you could use this.” As if my thoughts had summoned him, Dax was suddenly at my side, setting down a steaming cup of coffee in front of me.

I tilted my head back to look up at him. “So you didn’t leave.”

He frowned. “No. Why would I leave? I came here to see you.”

“Oh.” I picked up the coffee and sniffed it, humming a little in appreciation. “You disappeared after I finished speaking.”

“I was waiting for your fans to leave.” He lifted one shoulder. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Hmm. Thanks.” I pried the lid from the paper cup and blew on the coffee. I hated getting a burned tongue. “Why are you here, anyway? And how did you know I’d be speaking tonight?”

“I followed you on social media, and there was an announcement,” Dax replied, answering the second question first. “And like I just said, I’m here to see you. Since you turned down all my invitations, I decided to give it one last shot and just—show up.” He spread his hands. “That makes me sound like a stalker. But I honestly just wanted to see you again, Coral. I was hoping maybe we could go somewhere and talk.”

I squared my shoulders. “Haven’t we said everything that needs to be said? I told you that I’m not looking for a relationship. If by talk you mean we should go somewhere and get naked, I would definitely take that under consideration.”

“Since I was thinking about taking you to the little restaurant around the corner, getting naked doesn’t seem like the best plan,” Dax shot back. “God, Coral. When did I become the girl in this scenario? Here I am, telling you I don’t want to have no-strings-attached sex, and you’re acting like I’m the unreasonable one.”

“Because you are!” I raised my voice, and several customers still lingering turned their heads, reminding me that we were in a very public setting. I took a calming breath and went on. “I made myself very clear when we were on the picnic. I’m not looking for anything other than . . . friends with benefits. I’m not capable of more. Trust me. That part of me died with Jason.”

“And I told you that day that I call bullshit,” he growled. “If you’re so sure that you’re never going to feel that way again, why not give us a chance and prove it to me? If we start seeing each other and you can still honestly say that it won’t work, then fine. I’ll accept that. But I think you’re afraid of me. Of this.” He pointed to himself and then to me. “You’re scared shitless that you’ll fall for me, and that will somehow make what you felt for Jason . . . less.”

A mix of panic and fury, laced with something I else I didn’t care to name, rose within me. Struggling to keep my voice low, I stood up and stepped closer to Dax, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything I had to say.

“You don’t know me. You don’t know how much Jason meant—means to me. And I have to wonder why you’re going to all this trouble to chase after a woman who’s made herself very clear from the word go.” Anger made me impulsive and unreasonable—and careless with my words.

“As a matter of fact,” I went on. “What I think is that you liked the little taste of fame you got when we were at the movie premiere. You saw what it was like to have people cheering, reporters asking you questions, photographers taking your picture. And now that you got that taste, you want more, and you see me as the ticket. That’s why you keep asking me out. That’s why you stalked me here tonight.”

Dax’s eyes flashed with hurt and irritation. “If that’s what you really think of me—if you can believe that of me—maybe we don’t have anything more to say to each other.”

I swallowed a whole heap of regret and tossed my head. “Why the hell else would you be interested in me, Dax? That’s the question I’m asking myself right now. When you could have any woman in the world, why are you pursuing me?”

He took one step backward. “Did you ever stop and think that it’s because I really like you, Coral? Or that I can’t get the memory of the one kiss we shared out of my head? Did you consider that maybe I can’t stop thinking about spending more time with you—and that it has nothing to do with your job or your fame—” He spit out the word as though it tasted bad. “—but only because I really fucking liked you? Because I do. Or I did before you just made me feel like nothing more than a—a guy you hired to pretend to be your boyfriend.”

Before I could even take another breath, Dax turned and stomped out of the bookshop, vanishing into the darkness and leaving me with nothing but my own remorse and shame.

Want to know what comes next?

Episode Seventeen is coming next Friday, December 17th!

Do Coral and Dax stand a chance?

There are TWO more episodes of Bosom Buddies.

Don’t miss them!

What about Celeste?

If you didn’t read her story in TINSEL AND TATAS,

don’t despair . . .

TITS THE SEASON

is available here now!

Bosom Buddies Episode Fifteen

If you missed Episode Eleven, read it here.

If you missed Episode Twelve, read it here.

If you missed Episode Thirteen, read it here.

If you missed Episode Fourteen, read it here.

Dax

I never considered myself a gambling man, but today, I was doing just that. I’d woken up this morning with Coral on my mind, the memory of that kiss—hot damn! That kiss!—still on my lips and the scent of her clinging to my tux jacket as I rolled it up to send it to the cleaners. I’d considered my options and decided I had nothing to lose by seeing if she was still in town and up for a late breakfast.

When Coral had responded that she was already on her way home to Burton, I hadn’t let that slow me down. I wasn’t the type of guy who was used to being told no by women—not that I was jerk about it when it did happen, and not that I ever pushed the issue. I’d been raised right.

Still, I’d gotten the sense the night before that Coral had been teetering on the verge of . . . something like saying yes to me. In her eyes, even as she’d told me that this was goodbye, I’d seen a tinge of regret, as if she was making that decision against what she really wanted. She was following the lead of her head instead of her . . . well, not her heart, necessarily, but maybe of her body.

So I’d pushed a little on the idea of a picnic. It had popped into my mind, and I’d run with it, thinking about the little mom-and-pop sandwich shop on the edge of town. When Coral had finally said yes, I grabbed my keys and headed out.

Now I was bouncing along a dirt road that was a dotted line on my navigation program, hoping I was going in the right direction and not about to run into an angry farmer with shotgun. Just as I rounded a corner, I saw a small figure standing beneath a tree, her back resting against the trunk as she bent her head over a book. Pulling onto the grass, I turned off the engine, slid the keys out of the ignition and climbed out of the driver’s seat.

“Hey, gorgeous.”

***

Coral lifted her head to look at me, and I felt a jolt when her eyes met mine. She looked completely different today; she wasn’t all dolled up for a date as she’d been the first time we’d met, or for a fancy premiere as she’d been last night. Today, she was dressed down in an oversized T-shirt and faded jeans with scuffed Chuck Taylors. Her face was clean without a hint of makeup and her short hair was tousled.

But to me, she’d never been so beautiful.

“Hi.” She pushed off the tree and took a few steps toward me, her hands still clutching the worn paperback. “You found me.”

It felt like those words meant more than what she’d said. You found me. Like she’d been lost, just waiting for the right guy to see who she was, to recognize her beauty, her worth . . . to sweep her into his arms the way I was longing to do.

I swallowed hard. “Yep. It was touch and go there for a minute. I was a little worried you’d sent me out in the middle of nowhere just to get me off your back.”

Coral smiled a little. “Nah. Trust me, if I was planning to get rid of you, I know all of the best ways. After all, I’m an author.”

“I’ll have to remember that. Might be a good incentive to behave.”

She laughed. “I’m not sure it would work with you. I have a feeling you’re kind of incorrigible.”

“I might be,” I admitted. And then, before I gave in to the desire to sweep this woman into my arms once again, I opened the trunk of my car. “Okay. I’ve got a blanket in here, and I picked up sandwiches, a couple of sodas, some chips . . . and oh, yeah, some napkins.” I scooped up everything we needed and slammed the lid of the trunk. “Sorry it isn’t fancier.”

“I don’t need fancy. Just food. I’m actually starving.” She patted her stomach. “What did you get me?”

“Well, I didn’t know what you wanted, so I just picked up their specialty. It’s an Italian sub with oil and vinegar. I hope you like it.”

“It sounds perfect.” She helped me spread the blanket, and we both sat down. “I’m not that picky when it comes to sandwiches. I love them all.”

“Good to know.” I handed her the paper-wrapped sub and a can of soda, and ripped open the bag of chips. “I like a girl who isn’t fussy.”

“Hey.” She shot me a mock-stern glance. “Don’t be sexist.”

I spread my hands. “I’m not. I don’t like guys who are fussy, either. I’m an equal opportunity disliker of high maintenance people.”

She grinned. “Okay, as long as we’ve got that straight.” Taking a bite of her sandwich, she groaned a little. “Oh, my God, this is so good.”

My body reacted to the sound as though she’d taken off a key piece of clothing. I watched in fascination as she chewed and swallowed, as her tongue darted out to swipe over her pretty pink lips. In my dark and dirty mind, I saw those lips wrapped around my—

“What did you get?”

“Huh?” I blinked, taking a deep breath. “Um, I got ham and cheese. I’m not a big fan of salami.”

Coral smirked. “Good to know.”

“Okay, listen.” I laid my sandwich on the open paper. “Let’s talk about something that doesn’t feel—you know, like, sex talk in disguise. Unless you want to forget this food and roll around on the blanket with me instead.”

She stared at me in silence for a long moment. “I didn’t realize we were, um, sex talking in disguise. Okay. Ah . . .” She inhaled, and I did my damnedest not to look at her tits. “So. Tell me about you. Are you originally from Savannah? Did you grow up there? Is your family still in the area?”

I struggled to keep up as we switched gears. “No, not from Georgia. I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina. Family . . . I don’t have any left. None that I want to know, anyway. I have no idea who my father was, and my mother took off when I was a kid. Left me with my grandpa, and he brought me up.” I shrugged. “He owned a bar. We lived upstairs, and I started working there when I was still in grade school. You know, like, bussing tables and shit.” I reached for a chip. “My grandfather had a heart attack when I was twenty. He decided he wanted to retire, to live in town with his sister . . . and he didn’t want me to be tied to the bar for the rest of my life. So he sold it to his son, my uncle, and I headed south. Ended up in Savannah . . . because I met a girl.”

“Ohhhhh.” Coral wagged her eyebrows. “A girl, huh?”

“Yeah, and I was still young and stupid, so I thought I’d found my happy ending, you know? Got a gig at a local bar, worked a lot to get us a decent place to live, but before I could save up for the security deposit, I came home one night and found that while I was working, she was fucking another guy in our bed.” I shrugged. “So I took my shit and moved into the decent place by myself. I kept working, got better jobs when I could, and finally, I landed at the Gwynn. It’s a good spot for me. I like what I do.”

“And after getting your heart broken, you lived like a monk?” she teased. “All work and no play?”

“Hell, no.” I winked at her. “I’m not a dull boy, baby. There’s been a lot of play over the years. I don’t know that the girl who kept me in Savannah broke my heart, though. More like my pride. And maybe she hurt my trust in people.”

“Hmmm.” She took a long drink of her soda. “I get that. And it was her loss.”

“Thanks.” I finished my sandwich.

“What about your grandpa? Do you ever go see him?”

I shook my head. “I did, but he died two years ago. My uncle sold the bar to a company that tore it down and built some chain restaurant. So no reason for me to go back there.”

“I’m sorry.” She reached one hand to cover mine and then seemed to think better and withdrew her touch. “That sucks.”

“Nah. It’s fine. Gramps was ready to go—he’d gotten pretty sick at the end. And my uncle wasn’t running the bar the way it deserved, so that needed to stop, too. I don’t have any regrets. It’s not my thing.” I stretched my legs out and leaned back on my elbows. “That’s me. Now tell me about you.”

“You know about me. Author. Klutz. Unrepentant babbler.” She lifted one shoulder. “That’s me.”

“No, it’s not,” I corrected. “You’re a talented and successful author who gets her books made into movies. You have two very loyal best friends who think you’re the shit. And they told me that you’re glad to play matchmaker for them, but that you never date.”

“That’s not exactly true,” she countered. “I just don’t have relationships. I have my fair share of dates.” Her cheeks went slightly pink. “I don’t object to one-night stands.”

“Oh, really?” I cocked my head. “But no relationships. Why is that? I’d think the romance author would be all over finding her own happily ever after.”

“Maybe I already did find it, and I know I’m not going to get it again.” She dipped her gaze to the blanket between us, her teeth sinking into her full bottom lip.

“Now that needs some explanation. Sounds like there’s a story.” I nudged her hip with my foot. “Spill it, writer woman. I need to know.”

Coral flickered her eyes to me. “It’s not a pretty story, Dax. No happy ending in this one.”

“I figured. If it did, you wouldn’t be sitting here with me.”

“True,” she admitted and then took another deep breath. This time, I did let myself ogle her chest. Just a little.

“Okay. Um, when I was seventeen, I found a lump in my breast.”

“What?” I frowned, bringing my attention back to her face.

“A lump,” Coral repeated patiently. “I was young, and everyone figured it was just, you know, a gland or something. Maybe a cyst. But my mom was always super vigilant, so she took me to her doctor, and they did a mammogram, an ultrasound, then a biopsy. And it was cancer.”

“Fuck, Coral.” I sat up straight. “Holy fuck. You had fucking breast cancer?”

“I did.” She nodded. “And so I was in and out of the hospital for over a year. In the end, I responded well to the chemo and radiation—it was grueling, brutal, and nothing I ever want to live through again—and I went into remission.” She tapped her head with a crooked smile. “And knock on wood, twelve years later, I’m still okay. At least, I’m still cancer-free.”

“Crap, Coral. I didn’t have any idea.” I raked my hand through my hair.

“No, because I don’t make a big deal out of it. But that’s not my point.” She leaned back on her hands, staring over my shoulder. “While I was in the hospital undergoing treatment, I met Jason. We fell in love. I found my soulmate when we were both in the fight for our lives.”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Jason, huh?”

“Yeah.” Her lips curved slightly. “He was sweet and earnest and he had a very aggressive form of brain cancer. But still, he was doing incredibly well. The doctors were optimistic, and we . . . we were wildly in love. We spent every minute together that we could. We had sex for the first time the day after the doctor told me I was in remission.”

“Oh.” I pictured a younger Coral, and my heart ached for the girl she had been.

“A couple of months later, Jason told me he had to go for an overnight procedure to have a shunt repositioned. He joked that it was such a small thing, the prep was going to take longer than the procedure. And it did—it was successful. I went over to see him when he was back home, and for the first time ever, we made real plans. We talked about where we wanted to go to college, when we wanted to get married, what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives . . . then before I left, I kissed him goodbye and said I’d see him in the morning.” She paused. “But I didn’t. He never woke up. There was—an aneurism. No one knew, no one could’ve known. He died in his sleep . . . painlessly, the doctors told us. They said he never would’ve known.”

“God.” My voice was raw. “Fuck, Coral, I’m so sorry. You were just a kid.”

“I was, in a way. And in another way, cancer makes you grow up fast. So does death. I wasn’t a kid anymore.” She squared her shoulders. “And I knew then, just as I know now, that I’d had my one chance at real love. Jason was my soulmate. He was who I was meant to be with, and when he died, part of me did, too.”

I understood now why she’d been so resistant to my overtures last night. “You don’t know that. You were so young. Wouldn’t Jason want you—”

“Don’t do that.” She held up a hand. “Don’t you think everyone has said this to me? My parents, my friends? But they don’t know what I feel. What I know.” She shook her head. “And I know that Jason was it for me. I might have . . . like, hook-ups, friends-with-benefits, sex dates, but I’m not going to fall in love. Not again. Not ever.”

I should have been ecstatic by this news. After all, hook-ups and one-night stands were my jam, right? I should’ve been relieved that I had a shot to get naked with this woman who turned me on in a big way without having to worry about catching feelings.

But instead, as we slowly began cleaning up from our picnic, all I felt was a hollow sense of despair.

Want to know what comes next?

Episode Sixteen is coming next Friday, December 10th!

Do Coral and Dax stand a chance?

There are THREE more episodes of Bosom Buddies.

Don’t miss them!

What about Celeste?

If you didn’t read her story in TINSEL AND TATAS,

don’t despair . . .

TITS THE SEASON

is available here now!

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